The Next Level: A Guide to Postsecondary Education

Postsecondary education refers to any education pursued after high school. This includes various types of colleges, universities, and career schools that offer programs leading to a degree or certificate.

The most common types of post-secondary institutions include:

  • Four-year colleges and universities that offer bachelor’s degrees, usually completed in four years of full-time study. Many also offer advanced degrees like master’s and doctoral degrees.

  • Two-year community colleges and junior colleges that offer associate’s degrees and certificates, usually completed in two years of full-time study. Many students start at community colleges and transfer to four-year schools.

  • Career, technical and trade schools that offer certificates and diplomas in fields like healthcare, business, technology and the trades. Programs can range from a few months to two years.

  • Graduate schools that offer advanced degrees like master’s and doctorates for students who have completed an undergraduate degree. Programs are usually 1-3 years beyond a bachelor’s degree.

The term “higher education” is also used interchangeably with post-secondary education. Essentially any education after high school that leads to a degree or certificate from an accredited institution would be considered post-secondary or higher education.

Four-Year Colleges and Universities

Four-year colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees and are a common path for postsecondary education. These schools provide an immersive college experience where students live on campus or nearby and take classes full-time.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a four-year college:

  • Public vs private: Public colleges and universities receive funding from state governments and tend to be more affordable, while private colleges rely on tuition, fees, and private donors and can be quite expensive. Public schools often have large student populations while private schools are generally smaller.

  • Residential vs commuter: Students at residential colleges live on campus in dorms and apartments, which provides a built-in community and convenient access to classes and activities. At commuter schools, students live off campus and commute each day. Commuter schools can offer a good option for saving money on room and board.

  • Academic programs: The variety of majors and degree programs offered is an important consideration. Research what programs align with your academic and career interests.

  • Location: Look at colleges in regions you’re interested in living after graduation. Urban campuses provide access to city resources while rural campuses offer a more serene setting.

  • Campus life: Consider the extracurricular activities, sports, clubs, diversity, social atmosphere and overall “feel” of the campus. Visit colleges to get a firsthand experience.

  • Cost and financial aid: Carefully evaluate the true cost of attendance after any financial aid and scholarships are applied. Public colleges tend to be the most affordable options.

Doing thorough research and campus visits can help prospective students find the best four-year college or university to match their needs and goals. The experiences and connections gained during a bachelor’s program help lay the foundation for future careers and opportunities.

Community Colleges

Community colleges, sometimes called junior colleges or two-year colleges, offer associate’s degrees, vocational certificates, and continuing education opportunities. They provide affordable and accessible higher education options, often preparing students for transfer to four-year colleges or entry into the workforce.

Community colleges typically have open enrollment policies, meaning students don’t have to meet selective admissions criteria. They allow high school graduates, working adults, and nontraditional students to pursue postsecondary education. Students can earn an associate degree in about two years by completing 60 credits. Common programs include liberal arts, business, information technology, healthcare, and skilled trades.

The average annual tuition at community colleges is around $3,700 compared to over $10,000 at public four-year colleges. This makes them an affordable stepping stone for many students. Certificate programs can take less than a year to complete and lead directly to jobs. Community colleges also partner with local employers to develop training programs tailored to workforce needs.

In addition to degrees and certificates, community colleges provide enrichment courses for lifelong learners. Offerings may include arts, languages, fitness, and enrichment classes without credits or grades. Community colleges play an essential role in making postsecondary education accessible and preparing students for employment or further education. Their flexibility and affordability provide key opportunities, especially for non-traditional students.

Career and Technical Schools

Career and technical schools, also known as vocational schools or trade schools, provide specialized training and education for various careers. These schools offer job-specific programs and hands-on training to prepare students for occupations in fields like healthcare, business, technology, and the skilled trades.

Some of the key features of career and technical schools include:

  • Programs are focused on a specific occupation and take less time to complete than four-year degrees. Many certificate and diploma programs can be completed in less than two years.

  • The curriculum is centered around practical, career-oriented skills and knowledge. Programs involve a lot of hands-on learning, labs, and work experience.

  • Students develop job-specific skills and applied knowledge directly related to their chosen career path. Programs are tailored around industry needs and help graduates prepare for certification exams.

  • Career options may include nursing assistant, medical assistant, dental hygienist, computer technician, automotive technician, cosmetologist, electrician, welder, and more.

  • Most programs have smaller classes led by industry-experienced instructors. The learning environment resembles real workplaces.

  • Career services help students with job placement, internships, resume writing, and interview preparation. Many schools have relationships with local employers.

  • Certificates and diplomas from accredited programs are widely recognized by employers. Some schools also have transfer agreements with colleges.

  • The focused and flexible programs allow students to enter the workforce more quickly compared to four-year degrees. Graduates gain practical skills to start in entry-level jobs and advance in their field.

  • Lower tuition costs compared to universities and flexible schedules make career and technical schools accessible for many students. Financial aid and scholarships are also available.

Career and technical schools provide a direct pathway for students seeking postsecondary training and education for skilled trades, technical, and service occupations. The relevant, career-focused programs allow graduates to enter in-demand fields and get started in rewarding careers.

Graduate Schools

Graduate schools offer advanced degree programs beyond a bachelor’s degree. There are two main types of graduate degrees:

Master’s Degrees

A master’s degree is an advanced degree that allows students to gain expertise in a particular field or topic. Master’s programs typically take 1-3 years to complete depending on the specific program and field of study.

Common types of master’s degrees include:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

Master’s programs focus on coursework, research, and practicums related to the field of study. They allow students to deepen their knowledge and skills to prepare for careers or further graduate study.

Doctoral Degrees

A doctoral degree is the highest level of academic degree awarded. Earning a doctoral degree generally requires 4-6 years of additional study beyond a bachelor’s degree.

The two main types of doctoral degrees are:

  • Professional doctorates: Designed for students pursuing careers in areas like law, medicine, or education. Examples include MD, JD, and EdD degrees. The focus is on developing skills for professional practice.

  • Research doctorates: Designed for students pursuing academic careers involving original research. The most common research doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). These programs focus on developing expertise in a subject area and conducting independent research.

Pursuing a doctoral degree allows students to become experts in their chosen field through advanced coursework and intensive research. Doctoral graduates may go on to careers in academia, research, business, government, or anywhere their high-level skills are needed.

Online Education

Online education has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, with millions of students now taking at least some of their courses entirely over the internet. This allows students flexibility to take classes and complete coursework on their own schedule. It also opens up access to education for many students who cannot attend traditional in-person classes due to factors like work, family obligations, transportation issues, or physical distance from a college campus.

Some of the key advantages of online education include:

  • Flexibility – Students can complete coursework during times that fit their schedule, whether early morning, late night, weekends, etc. This allows them to balance education with other responsibilities.

  • Accessibility – Online classes remove geographic barriers, allowing students to take courses from anywhere with an internet connection. This opens doors for many students.

  • Potentially lower costs – Eliminating transportation and living costs of being on campus can make online programs more affordable in some cases.

  • Self-paced options – Some online programs allow students to move through material at their own pace, which can help them balance school with other commitments.

  • Broader range of programs – The rise of online education has allowed colleges to offer more specialized degree and certificate programs that may not have had enough local interest to fill an in-person class.

However, online education also comes with some limitations to consider:

  • Less social interaction – Students miss out on face-to-face engagement with instructors and peers that often enhances on-campus learning.

  • Requires self-motivation – Online students must be able to stay on task without in-person reminders or set class times.

  • Potential technical issues – Reliable internet access is a must, and tech problems can disrupt learning.

  • Fewer hands-on opportunities – Labs, clinical rotations, or in-person group projects may be limited in online settings.

  • Concerns about quality – Some employers still prefer degrees earned in traditional settings rather than online.

Overall, online education opens doors for many students while still carrying some disadvantages compared to on-campus programs. Students should weigh the pros and cons carefully when deciding what format best fits their needs and learning style.

Paying for College

Paying for college is one of the biggest challenges for students pursuing higher education. With rising tuition costs, most students cannot afford to pay for college out of pocket. Luckily, there are several options to help finance a college education.

Financial Aid

The first step for any student is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application determines eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs based on financial need. The FAFSA should be completed every year the student is enrolled. Federal Pell Grants are awarded based on financial need and do not need to be repaid.

Student Loans

Federal student loans are available to all students regardless of income. These loans come in two types: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans are based on financial need and the government pays the interest while the student is in school. Unsubsidized loans accrue interest while the student is enrolled. Student loans must be repaid with interest after graduation.


Scholarships are awarded based on academic merit, athletics, extracurricular activities, community service, and other criteria. Many schools and private organizations offer scholarships, so students should thoroughly research available options.


Federal work-study programs allow students to work part-time jobs, often on campus, to earn money to pay for college expenses. Work-study is awarded as part of the financial aid package for students with financial need. The income earned does not have to be repaid.

Financing higher education takes a combination of financial aid, loans, scholarships, work-study, and personal/family contributions. With proper planning, students have many options to fund their post-secondary education.

Choosing a School

Choosing the right college or university is one of the most important decisions a student will make. There are many factors to consider when selecting a school.

Academic Programs

Look at the academic majors and programs offered at the school. Make sure they have your desired major and that the courses meet your educational goals. Consider the quality and reputation of the programs as well.


Think about the school’s location and surrounding area. Is it close to home or further away? In a city or small town? Consider distance in cost of travel and ability for family to visit. Also look at the location’s climate, culture, size, and available activities.

Cost and Financial Aid

Review the tuition, room and board costs, and other fees. Compare costs across schools. Find out what percentage of students receive financial aid and the average aid amount. Look into merit aid and athletic scholarships you may qualify for. Consider cost of attendance in relation to expected future salary after graduating.

Campus Culture

Get a feel for the overall campus vibe and student body. Size of enrollment can impact available activities and class sizes. Consider if it’s a commuter or residential campus. Research extracurricular clubs, athletics, diversity, political atmosphere and values. Visit campus if possible.

Graduation and Career Outcomes

Look at 4-year and 6-year graduation rates. Find out career outcomes like employment rates, average salaries, and top hiring companies. See what percentage of students complete internships. Review resources offered for career development and job placement.

Campus Resources

Consider the academic resources like libraries, labs, research centers, tutoring services. Look at health and wellness facilities, medical clinics, counseling services. Review dining hall options and dorm amenities. Think about accessibility resources if needed.

Applying to College

The college application process can seem daunting, but breaking it down into steps makes it much more manageable. Here’s an overview of the main components of applying to college:

Admissions Process

  • Research colleges and universities. Look for schools that match your academic interests, career goals, financial needs, campus culture, size, location, etc.

  • Take standardized tests like the SAT and/or ACT. These tests evaluate skills in areas like reading, writing, math, and science. Most colleges require either the SAT or ACT.

  • Request letters of recommendation. Ask teachers, coaches, employers, etc. who know you well to write a letter supporting your college application.

  • Write application essays and short responses. These let you showcase your personality, background, goals, and what makes you unique.

  • Submit applications before deadlines. Apply early action or early decision for your top choice school. Regular decision deadlines are typically in January or February.

  • Complete the FAFSA financial aid application as soon as possible after October 1st.

  • Visit campuses, if possible. An on-campus tour can help determine if a school is the right fit.

Standardized Testing

The SAT and ACT are standardized tests used by most colleges in their admissions process. It’s recommended to take these tests in your junior year and again in senior year if you want to improve your score. Test optional policies are also increasingly common, allowing students to apply without including test scores.


The application essay allows you to share who you are beyond grades and test scores. Brainstorm meaningful topics and experiences that reveal your passions, goals, background, achievements, and personality. Showcase your writing skills through clear, engaging prose. Most essays range from 250-650 words.

Benefits of Higher Education

Pursuing education beyond high school has many benefits for individuals and society as a whole. At the personal level, higher education leads to better career prospects, higher earning potential, and opportunities for personal growth.

Career Prospects

College graduates have much better employment prospects than those with just a high school diploma. The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is typically half that of high school graduates. College exposes students to a wide range of careers they may not have considered before and helps develop skills valued in the workplace like communication, problem-solving, and teamwork. Those with degrees are more likely to obtain professional and managerial level positions.

Earning Potential

There is a substantial earnings gap between college graduates and those with only a high school education. Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn about two-thirds more over their lifetime than high school graduates. Further education beyond a bachelor’s degree, such as a master’s or doctorate, leads to even higher earning potential. Increased earnings allow college graduates to more easily achieve financial stability and a middle-class lifestyle.

Personal Growth

A college education leads to significant personal growth and development. Being exposed to new ideas, cultures, and ways of thinking helps expand perspectives. College is a time for students to gain independence, build self-confidence, and learn more about themselves. The academic rigor of college helps sharpen critical thinking and problem-solving skills. College provides opportunities to gain leadership experience and get involved with extracurricular activities and organizations. All of these factors contribute to personal fulfillment and becoming a well-rounded individual.

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